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Fairfax County adopts rules taxing Airbnb-style rentals

(Issei Kato/Reuters)

Fairfax County this week joined other Washington-area jurisdictions in regulating short-term rental arrangements made through websites such as Airbnb, an issue that pits homeowners hoping to profit from a growing market against neighbors worried about public safety and noise.

A change in the county’s zoning ordinance, approved Tuesday by the Fairfax Board of Supervisors, allows county residents to rent out their homes for up to 60 days a year, provided that they limit the number of occupants to six adults, have available parking and allow only one group at a time to use the property.

In exchange, residents must buy a $200, two-year permit and pay transient occupancy taxes that equal 6 percent of what they earn per contract. Overall, officials estimate that the rules will generate $578,000 per year for the county’s strained operating budget.

The rules, approved 7 to 3 by the county board, take effect Oct. 1.

“Short-term lodging, while people have been doing that for years, hasn’t really been recognized in our zoning ordinance,” said the board’s chair, Sharon Bulova (D-At Large). “Without any kind of regulation or oversight, it could be interfering with the quiet enjoyment of people’s neighborhoods and homes.”

Local rules for short-term rentals have increased in recent years as Airbnb and similar sites have become more popular, leading to debates over property rights and the gentrifying effect short-term rentals have on some neighborhoods. 

Last year, Virginia’s General Assembly passed a law allowing local jurisdictions to regulate the practice as they see fit, prompting the city of Alexandria in March to become the first locality in the state to tax the practice.

Elsewhere in the region, the District and Montgomery County also have begun collecting taxes for short-term rentals. Arlington County began allowing short-term rentals in 2016, requiring homeowners to get a license and limit the number of renters to six per unit.

A spokeswoman for Airbnb called Fairfax’s 60-day limit “very restrictive,” noting that Arlington’s annual cap on how many nights one can rent out a home is 180. Montgomery allows for 120 nights, while San Francisco and other localities throughout the country allow for 90 days.

In Fairfax, Virginia’s largest jurisdiction, there are about 1,550 active listings for short-term rentals, officials said. Some say the rentals negatively affect nearby hotels and create situations in which neighbors are not sure whether people renting homes are intruders.

“The idea of strangers coming in and your kids playing out in your backyard and never knowing who is supposed to be there or not is certainly something I’ve heard about,” said Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence).

On Tuesday, arguing for stricter rules before the vote, she called an Airbnb rental near her Merrifield-area home “a disturbance.”

Those who rent their homes say the rule limiting rentals to 60 days per year will make it harder for them to pay bills and will hurt restaurants and other businesses near their homes that they have recommended to renters.

“If you buy a property, anyplace, that property is yours to do with what you want, including making a profit with it,” said Tricia Moore, 55, who has rented out a second home she owns near Tysons Corner as a way to save for her retirement.

Several people said they rent their homes to people visiting Fairfax for work, funerals or wedding anniversaries.

“This isn’t really a party destination,” said James Goen, 37, who uses what he makes renting his six-bedroom house in Springfield to pay a $3,500 monthly mortgage. “There is a surprising number of families coming in.”